Saturday, February 11, 2012

Gender Disadvantage and Class Advantage

Wow. I'd never thought of this that way.

Co-incidentally, just after reading this article, I saw the bookmark I was using. Flipkart has this series of bookmarks on the theme of 'Reasons to use the bookmark'. Reason #10? 'Your mum is vacuuming the sofa, and you are on it.' Never the dad.

The Hindu : Today's Paper / OPINION : The everyday embrace of inequality:

A professional woman who wants to have a serious career learns to use her class advantage (the ability to hire a worker) to minimise her gender disadvantage (the inability to insist that your husband do his share of the housework and childcare). To put it bluntly, men simply won't do housework and women don't feel they can make them. The dominant ideology continues to be indisputably that men are responsible for life outside the home and women for life within the home, even if women work outside the home. The presence of a servant simply mitigates the need to insist that men do their share at home, and because it is the servant that does the housework, it continues to be devalued labour.

'via Blog this'
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Sunday, February 05, 2012

How Much Should A Person Consume? - Ramachandra Guha

I picked up this book because of the intriguing title. And also because it was Ramachandra Guha, of course. Guha is one of the very few Indian intellectuals who write well enough to make their subjects accessible to the layman. His India After Gandhi is a masterpiece on the history of India after independence.

In this collection of essays, Guha introduces the reader to the history of environmentalism  - mostly in India, but also in the West. Three of the nine essays are profiles of prominent environmentalists - Lewis Mumford, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Madhav Gadgil. The others are masterful criticisms of the hypocrisy of certain types of environmentalists. 

The unifying theme of the book is the close relationship between environmentalism and the rights of the poor. There are three main ways, Guha says, in which the two are linked. 

The first is the hypocrisy of the West, when it comes to the rest of the world. Over the past two-three centuries, the countries of the West have enjoyed high economic growth, and the associated socio-economic development. They were able to achieve this mostly by exploiting the resources of the less well-off countries of the southern hemisphere. These countries have managed to protect their own ecology, but have destroyed that of the countries they colonized. And now that they have achieved the requisite levels of development, they preach to these same countries on the virtues of protecting the environment.

The second linkage between environmentalism and the poor is the tussle between the government and the indigenous people. The government, says Guha, is a centralized, bureaucratic entity. In trying to protect the forests and the wildlife, the government creates insensitive policies that trespass on the rights of the poor. The indigenous people have used the forests as the source of their livelihood for centuries, but are now restricted from even entering these forests. Not only that, the government displays its two-facedness by denying the people access to  the forests, and then allowing businessmen to cut down the trees for their own ends.

The third issue springs from the previous one - the contradiction between the needs of the rural millions, and those of the smaller number in the cities. The cities over-consume, and the government takes away rural resources in order to satisfy the needs of the cities. An obvious example here is the building of large dams in order to provide electricity to the cities. Millions are displaced in the process - the government does not provide adequate rehabilitation to them. They end up in the slums of the nearest city.

Guha does not just proscribe - he also prescribes. The solution to the problem, he says, lies in decentralizing our systems. We should devolve power to the people. Each village or community must have the rights to manage its own forest resources. The government must not interfere unless absolutely necessary. 

In the eponymous essay, the final one, Guha points out the contradiction between the West's over-consumption (an average American consumes over 20 times the amount an average Indian consumes) and its arrogance in preaching to the developing countries that they need to reduce their population. 

He also quotes Gandhi, "God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."

Believe it or not, he said that in 1928. And that's exactly what's happening today. Two gigantic countries, India and China, are scouring the world for the resources needed to meet their growing energy needs. Over-exploitation is hitting an all-time high, as the people of the world's largest countries (by population) start aping the consumption patterns of the already developed countries of the West. A scary prospect indeed.
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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Sea, The Sea - Iris Murdoch

The book that this novel reminded me of most was Alex Garland's The Beach. Those who have read both the books will wonder why, because they have nothing in common except vaguely similar sounding names. One is about a famous play director who decides to retire and settle down on the cold and grey coast of Britain, while the other is about a group of hippies who set up an alternative community on a remote island in Thailand. One won the Booker in 1978, while the other was written almost twenty years later. On the surface of it, no two books could be more dissimilar. 
The similarity, I think, is that both books chronicle the slow disintegration of the main protagonist's mind. In The Beach, it's a disintegration of the wild sort - the human mind slowly loses the rules and principles that it would normally live by in society, and becomes wild. In The Sea, The Sea, on the other hand, the disintegration is within the bounds of human understanding - a man trying to come to terms with sudden anonymity, and with the sudden re-entry of an old flame into his life.

But let's start from the beginning. Charles Arrowby is the play director in question, who has decided to withdraw from the glamour of the stage in London, to a quirky house in a remote village on the sea coast. He plans to read, to write his memoirs, to enjoy the sea, to cook for himself. Little does he realize that he will soon run across the old love of his life - 'Hartley', a girl who left him when he was seventeen, for no reason that he could understand. 

The book is divided into three parts - 'Pre-history', the bit before Charles runs across Hartley, in which he is writing his memoirs; 'History', in which the main events unfold; and the Epilogue, what happens after. 'Pre-History' is a slow read - Charles describes his house, his daily swims, his food - and we wonder why. The author is slowly building up the atmosphere, but to what end?

And then, in 'History', the book kicks off. A few more characters come in. And finally, from them, we get a better understanding of Charles - how insanely jealous he can be, how he breaks up relationships just to feel the power of it, how much he hates women. Were these characteristics, we are forced to wonder, caused by Harley's inexplicable abandonment of him? 

In 'History', Charles describes his increasingly desperate attempts to get in touch with and talk to Hartley - asking her son to stay at his place, asking her over and then lying about how late it is, and finally - kidnapping her. The reader becomes increasingly aware that there is something wrong with Charles. Surely his actions are not those of a rational man? 

His friends try to counsel him - not least his cousin James, a retired Army man. James seems to be another person who has had a tremendous influence on Charles' personality. Of the two cousins, James was always the more privileged one - whether in terms of money or liberal parents or grades at school. But it is finally Charles who has achieved country-wide fame, and that makes him feel superior to James. But one can't help feeling that there is a peculiar symbiotic relationship between the two, almost as if they would not exist without the other.

The strongest element of this novel is the complex characterization - whether it is Charles or Hartley's husband, or James or Charles' many friends. The only character who is left a bit blurred, intentionally or otherwise, is Hartley herself, the center of all the action. Perhaps it's because we only get to know her through Charles, and he is a bit ambivalent about her himself. On the one hand, he proclaims over and over again that he loves her. Then again, he can't help focusing on her imperfections - how old she has become, her inept makeup, her large body. He can't help contrasting his own youthfulness with her old age. 

The novel ends on a strange note, with a mysterious Eastern touch. Has Charles found himself at last? Is he content with himself at last? Read to find out.
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